Want to finish your memoir this year? Here are four resolutions to help you create an enduring memoir that transforms your individual experience into a universal one that speaks to a wide readership.
1. This year I will make myself vulnerable on the page.
What’s the one quality that keeps me reading a memoir? The narrator’s willingness to make himself vulnerable. Most often in memoir the narrator’s vulnerability originates from sharing stuff most of us want to hide — our fears, our mistakes, our smallness, our regrets. Yet, big confession doesn’t always translate to instant vulnerability. We don’t really need more tales of simple carnality and depravity. It isn’t necessary to have broken nine of the Ten Commandments to earn the reader’s attention. I think most readers of memoir are compelled by the nuances of intimacy over the lap dance; we’d rather read a slow rendering of envy or avarice than yet another bald confession of adultery. We’re looking for insight, for subtlety, but mostly we desire the writer’s complicity in the problem. Before writing, ask yourself, “What was my part?” and then dare yourself to show that part.
2. This year I will share wisdom in my writing.
In Writing the Memoir, Judith Barrington describes “musing” as the memoirist’s skill of making an insightful observation about a specific situation or a more general human condition. In fiction writing classes, writers are admonished to “show not tell,” but in memoir, it’s perfectly okay — and in my opinion, advisable — to show and tell. And musing is the tell. Musing is the place in the story where you get to share your wisdom about grief or alienation or the price of success. For most of us, doling out wisdom can feel scary and unnatural. Writing about the nature of betrayal or love, we can be met with a rush of “Who am I to say?” But it is this type of wisdom — and the underlying boldness that generates this expression of wisdom — that readers of memoir hunger for. We want the author to own her authority (yes, the roots of the words are the same). We long for it. Dare to offer not just your story but the wisdom you’ve gained from it.
Here are a couple of examples of musing that demonstrate the type of conviction I believe readers of memoir crave:
From Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge:
I could not separate the Bird Refuge from my family. Devastation respects no boundaries. The landscape of my childhood and the landscape of my family, the two things I had always regarded as bedrock, were now subject to change. Quicksand.
From Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies:
[Grace] is unearned love — the love that goes before — that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.
3. This year I will not shun drama.
In real life, none of us want to be known as a drama queen, but in memoir, you need to embrace the drama of your own story and not be shy about playing it up here and there, especially in the opening and closing lines of chapters. While we might feel self-indulgent underscoring the drama of our own narratives, I think that it actually takes courage and humility to own the dramatic in your story. Why courage? Because being dramatic means fighting the conditioning that tells many of us to stay small, to not make a big deal of things, to not make ourselves “the center of the universe.” But in our memoirs, we are the center of the universe. As writers of memoir, being the center of the universe is our job.
I find tremendous courage in the way Cheryl Strayed uses dramatic repetition and foreshadowing at the end of sections and chapters in Wild. I think it is brave to write the words “I would suffer,” as she does in the book’s first chapter. This seems like a wildly courageous and fierce way to end a first chapter:
It took me years to take my place among the ten thousand things again. To be the woman my mother raised. To remember how she said honey and picture her particular gaze. I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.
It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.
4. This year I will seek to illuminate the universal aspects of my story.
I’ve written elsewhere about how important it is not to believe that our own stories are inherently interesting just because the events are sensational. My favorite quote about this comes from V.S. Pritchett: “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for the living.”
As Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses, has said, “In memoir, the transformation of the self is the story.” It’s not enough to tell an exciting story; you need to tease out the story of transformation within your narrative. And the story of transformation is, in essence, the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell wrote about in The Hero with A Thousand Faces, the cross cultural, universal story of a hero who is called to leave the ordinary world to journey into a special one. The hero — in a memoir, that’s you — heeds the call and makes his way through the special world over obstacles and through tests until, at last, he returns to the ordinary world. But he is no longer the same person who left pages ago for the special world; he is transformed.
And this universal story of transformation — even if it is transformation so externally imperceptible that no one but you might know it exists–this is the story of the most powerful memoirs. Read Strayed’s Wild with one eye to the hero’s journey and you’ll see what I mean. A woman is called into a special world; when she returns to the ordinary world, she is transformed. It’s the story of transformation your readers long for. Find it within yourself and give it to your readers.
You can read more on my thoughts on writing memoir in Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too)